Remembering the Sad, Beautiful, Funny, and Especially Weird '90s: I Crash the Pete & Pete Reunion - Absurdity Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Matthew DeMello

From right to left: Danny Tamborelli and Mike Maronna both played brothers named Pete Wrigley in Nickelodeon’s seminal short lived series from the early ’90s. The Onion‘s A.V. Club hosted a reunion for the original cast last Friday at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Synthesis.net.

As Co-Editorial Director here at BreakThru Radio, one of my responsibilities is to come up with those pithy, brief summaries you see in the right hand menu on our front page right under where it says what theme our articles are focusing on this week. For Absurdity Week, the best I could do was “After cynicism dominated humor throughout the ’90s, absurdity seems to be enjoying an extended stay in the comedic vogue…” And so on. Ok, maybe ‘pithy’ is too generous, but there’s little disputing that sentence among the comedy community.

Almost needless to say, when we think of humor in the ‘90s, comics like David Cross and Janeane Garofalo so clearly come to mind that I’m positive neither enjoys being mentioned in the same sentence at this point and haven’t for at least a decade. Grand exceptions aside (read: Seinfeld), it is through that paradigm that we gather the impression that the era was as good for white, liberal, ‘alt’ comedians espousing little faith in any sector of humanity as it was for victims of institutionalized racism in the ‘80s and marginalized Pacific Northwesterners with an affection for flannel. Usually this sort of context presupposes some confounded analysis for the trends we see in comedy today, or at least it has in the past for our writing staff.

The kicker here is that this impression is only held by the bulk of Generation X — those who were teenagers and twentysomethings in the ‘90s or anyone of age to have some kind of social awareness at the time. For the sake of argument, let’s say you were younger. Let’s say the farthest your musical memory goes back is Chris Issak’s “Wicked Game” and you were barely five years old when that song came out. In which case, cultural touchstones of the early era like the Seattle grunge explosion and the cynical liberal comic were things you had to find in your teenage years, like Led Zeppelin.

Still, you were a part of the world somehow — things said and sung on TVs and radios impacted your limited understanding in poignant and sometimes indescribable ways. If you weren’t quite old enough to remember Kurt Cobain putting a gun in his mouth, chances were you were going to find Green Day, the Spice Girls, or Wu-Tang Clan eventually (it was destiny… ’s child). For the royal “you” in this very slight portion of our society, comedy hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years or so; and one channel — more specifically, one show — has everything to do with that.

I speak of what some have called “the greatest children’s show ever”. I speak of a television program whose DVD release was a countdown-worthy event for certain college dorm rooms in the mid ‘00s. I speak of the cornerstone of everything the Weird ‘90s meant to anyone who had to grow up within their mysterious boundaries. I speak of the classic Nickelodeon series, The Adventures of Pete & Pete.

I also speak for a significant portion of the people who love the show today when I say that, though it was still an inextricable part of my childhood, the insane creativity of the show was something I grew to care for more deeply in my later years than I did when I was a kid. Though I may sadly fall in the Johnny-come-lately department when it comes to my fandom, thankfully Pete & Pete fans are an inclusive bunch, as I felt quite welcomed to attend the recent reunion of the show’s primary cast at an A.V. Club organized event here in NYC last Friday with a few superfan friends of mine. As co-creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi acknowledged on stage at the reunion, they set out to make a show that felt like childhood by trying to be sad, funny, strange, and beautiful all at once.

To incorporate the less appetizing portions of their formula, the creative team couldn’t help but indulge in their equally off-beat adult sensibilities. George Harrison has been referenced on several different occasions as saying that the famed British comedy troupe Monty Python usurped the zany, childlike spirit of the Beatles after their breakup. The same could be said of Pete & Pete in lieu of R.E.M.’s early melancholic and surreal mise en scene following their mainstream success with 1987’s Document. (To complete this metaphorical circle, it’s worth mentioning Michael Stipe gave a highly memorable cameo on the program, just as Harrison supported Python in similar ways.)

Because the creators, as they loved to mention during the panel discussion, had “no idea how to make a TV show,” Pete & Pete featured a distinctively DIY approach evident in its innovative cinematic textures, musical selections, and cultural references. The effect on children was a grand indoctrination to the alternative/indie counter culture on par with what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was doing for teens at that time or what Murmur meant to the world nearly ten years prior. I can personally attest to the fact that a large reason I’m so fascinated with Iggy Pop and The Stooges stems from the fact the notoriously lurid rock star played Nora’s standoffish but somehow adorable father on the show, definitely one of the more memorable characters.

Of course, these elements and most anything else anyone possibly loved about Pete & Pete were touched upon during the night — most of which concerned the colors of adulthood therein. The younger Wrigley brother’s garage band, The Blowholes, performed with friends of the show, Marshall Crenshaw and Syd Straw. Danny Tamborelli (who played little Pete) gushed about being taught how to play The Stooges’ “TV Eye” on bass by Iggy himself between shoots. A palpable portion of panel discussion was devoted to big Pete’s and Ellen’s first kiss and off-camera friendship. The musical influences on the show were picked apart in some depth, revealing that a Pixies song was first considered to be the theme but lacking funds necessitated the creation of a Miracle Legion side project called Polaris… who sounded pretty much exactly like R.E.M.

But probably the most illuminating revelation of the evening was the origins of the show’s most beloved and alien character, the mysterious and affectionate Artie, the “strongest man… IN THE WORLD!

Artie actor Toby Huss candidly described his pre-show existence as a self proclaimed “degenerate on the Lower East Side” who loved routinely getting high. Thankfully, he didn’t expound on how. He first conceived of Artie as a “sort of depressing” performance art piece depicting a mental asylum escapee convinced of his own extra human strength. Somehow, the extra human strength part embodied in a scrawny, spastic man-child seemed like the ideal imaginary friend to the show’s producers. While everyone thoroughly enjoyed his tenure on the show, the actor’s less than family-friendly nature was so at odds with the show’s ethos that he slowly found he could not reconcile the two, not even privately. During season three, he cordially and honorably departed the role of his own volition.

Inevitably, the combination of all these elements damned any sustainable commercial potential for the program from the very beginning due to what I’d like to call the Malcolm Gladwell Principle on Children’s Television. Just read the chapter on Blues Clues in his book, The Tipping Point, which can be summarized by saying a ‘well written children’s show’ by adult standards means that it won’t actually do all that well with children, as my experience exemplifies. That idea didn’t get across to TV execs until the late ‘90s, hence why Pete & Pete ever happened in the first place and why anything akin to it will likely never happen again.

Repeatedly, every member of the reunion panel attested to having “no clue” as to the show’s cult-like following until far after the advent of the Internet. I vaguely remember one of the Wrigley parents mentioning only having realized their fame in the “last few months,” as preposterous as that sounds. As flabbergasted and genuinely touched by the turnout as the cast appeared, they seemed equally anxious to gauge the level of fandom between trekkies and hipsters. Due to the faulty anticipation of low demand and even lower ticket prices, they sold out in mere minutes, forcing organizers to schedule a matinee event just to compensate.

Yet one characteristic of the show that is as apparent and fascinating today as it was back then is how everything about it does feel exactly like childhood to the point where I remember that aura as was one of the things I didn’t understand at five years old. True to the Gladwell Principle, the economics of a children’s show imitating the very ambiance of childhood makes for the pinnacle of artistic meta-vanity. If kids wanted more of what their lives already felt like, they’d just play outside more. Sorry to say, there were quite a few episodes of Pete & Pete that made me want to pick up a baseball as a kid that are now my favorites to enjoy as an adult.

When viewed almost twenty years after its final episode, the show’s aesthetic speaks volumes about the quality of innocence in that time — a time that feels so much less anxious and intense than today’s reality, and not coincidentally, a time when Monica Lewinsky knew complete anonymity.

Music writers love to reference what critic Greil Marcus describes as the “Old, Weird America,” one that featured different post-Civil War social landscapes for which there is no other discernible trace of anymore besides that of the music of Bob Dylan and other legendary folk artists. To me, The Adventures of Pete & Pete symbolizes an emotional universe that I have a strong and saddening hunch will be similarly forgotten by time. In the days since the reunion, I’ve only come to realize the show’s vaguely Velvet Underground-esque impact on youth-oriented television.

Go ahead, watch Adult Swim tonight and tell me that’s not just four hours of old-school Nickelodeon with a PG-13 rating. Specifically, I see Pete & Pete’s DIY sensibilities analogous to the grainy, green-screened, creepy public broadcasting feel of Tim & Eric Great Job, Awesome Show! among so many others. Simultaneously, so much about Pete & Pete could never possibly be replicated successfully, let alone conveyed to modern television watching children with expectations that it would feel remotely familiar to them. After all, most of the action takes place while playing outside and where the hell else are you going to find so many antagonists whose villainy is based on odd bodily functions, physical injuries, and other curious ailments?

Not to get on the backs of “those darn youngsters” but the long term success of Sponge Bob Square Pants (now in double digit seasons as compared to Pete & Pete’s measly three) is simply depressing by comparison, but not terribly surprizing. I’m sure someone somewhere on the Internet is bound to someday write a sappy ode to that cartoon along the same lines as this tribute.

I suppose part of me at the reunion felt a bit like how my dad did when The Beatles’ Anthology documentaries hit television, coincidentally the same year Pete & Pete was cancelled. (It’s more than likely I turned off Pete & Pete and went to bed just as he was gearing the VHS player to record the Anthology series.) As a large and intimidating generation gap between people my age and everyone currently in high school becomes more palpable in time, I’m not sure how much longer people my age are going to have left to properly celebrate things as wild and inimitable as Pete & Pete before the exercise becomes moot.

Then again, there was a sense of redemption in the evening, almost like a mother and child reunion (“though I would not give you false hope, no!”). Where the Anthology series was the first in a long, exhausting line of baby boomer self congratulations that would unravel into my dad’s grey years, the Pete & Pete reunion felt more like a homecoming. Given how some key players were not in attendance — in particular, actress Michelle Tratchenberg, Iggy Pop, and Polaris frontman Mark Mulcahy — a millennial can hope this is just one step in a long journey to give the sad, beautiful, funny, and especially weird ‘90s its long overdue diligence.

recommendations